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Chinese Zero Covid was always a lie Western media upheld the CCP's fabricated success

We all swallowed the Zero Covid lie. (Credit: Kevin Frayer / Stringer/ Gettty Images)

We all swallowed the Zero Covid lie. (Credit: Kevin Frayer / Stringer/ Gettty Images)


July 11, 2022   6 mins

For the past two years, the Western media has taken that pernicious little term, “Zero Covid”, at face value. While the rest of the world saw rocketing caseloads and death rates, during a key 18-month period China reported two (yes, two) deaths. In a country of 1.4 billion people, and with a disease that scientists find uncannily adapted to infect humans, this was not just obviously false; it was absurd.

Nevertheless, Western media has repeatedly validated the claim, often celebrating it. The result is that in the minds of billions of people, China was uniquely successful at containing the virus. What few, if any, have realised is that among the many false narratives constructed and deployed by the Chinese government, Zero Covid has been the most successful — a fact evidenced by the widespread adoption and use of that patently self-contradictory term itself.

Like any global, historically significant false narrative worth its salt, Zero Covid has not been monolithic in its claims. Rather, it has been modulated by the Chinese propaganda apparatus, with, of course, the witting or unwitting collaboration of Western media that has been essential to its success. The most recent manifestation of the Zero Covid false narrative is one that speaks to its daring and sophistication — the idea that, in response to criticism and pressure, the Chinese government came to terms with the fact that it could not cope with the swell of Omicron cases and so needed to ease restrictions.

The new “China is easing restrictions” phase of the CCP’s Zero Covid campaign began to emerge in March when a high-ranking Chinese health official began arguing in the Chinese business news outlet, Caixin, that China should fight the disease “more sustainably”. “We should carve a very clear path and not spend all our time debating whether we should continue zero Covid or coexist (with the virus),” wrote Zhang Wenhong, a senior infectious disease specialist known as the “Chinese Fauci”. Zhang followed up with another opinion piece a week later: “China’s Pandemic Fight Can and Should Allow for Normal Life.”

This development seemingly exposed the flaws in China’s Covid strategy, which is exactly what was messaged by the US media. The Associated Press article that reported Zhang’s comments added that despite the new policy advice, “the government is sticking with the tried-and-true policy of lockdowns, repeated mass testing of millions of people and a two-week or more quarantine for overseas arrivals
Opening up carries risks, because the country’s success in protecting people from Covid-19 means many don’t have antibodies to fight the virus from previous infection.”

The reality that the AP report papered over — and what virtually all Western media has missed as it swallowed CCP’s Covid narrative whole — is that China’s true Covid strategy wasn’t aimed at containing the virus; it was aimed at containing the narrative. “The Chinese CDC was told how it’s going to go,” a private intelligence analyst with knowledge of the data said. The source explains that the CCP’s methodology of choice is not to flatly deny data or take down reporting wholesale but simply “round the edges” off the story by obfuscating just enough to blunt any alternative narrative from forming.

This new inflection in the Zero Covid narrative, which claimed that Omicron reveals the “limits” of China’s approach, merely served to reinforce the idea that China had successfully contained Covid had up that point. In an article on the limits of Zero Covid in the Omicron era, the BBC credulously noted, “If you adjust for population size, there’s been around three deaths per million people in mainland China, compared with about 3,000 in the US and 2,400 in the UK.”

Even entertaining China’s absurd Zero Covid claims requires suspending basic human logic. Consider the case of Singapore, a country much richer and more advanced than China that was able to drive compliance at least as well. (Though considering the entire country is an urban island, in distinction to China’s vast rural expanses, probably much better.)

According to analyst George Calhoun, official Chinese data put China’s mortality rate 50 times lower than Singapore’s. South Korea — which has a single, permanently closed border which effectively makes it an island — is another standout for Covid success. Yet by Chinese official reporting, South Korea’s Covid mortality would be 73 times higher Covid-19 than China’s.

Late last year, The Economist published a machine learning study on global Covid-19 under-reporting rates, comparing reported Covid deaths to estimated excess deaths. The study found that it looked like the US under-reported Covid mortality by around 20%, though a number of Western European countries at times over-reported by around 2-3%. The highest rates of under-reported mortality top out at around 1,000% for countries including India, Afghanistan, Venezuela and a handful of others. That is, except for China, which the study estimates to have under-reported mortality by an eye-watering 19,000%.

Looking at China’s official death counts tells an equally surreal story. Like a fairytale princess, China’s total death count was frozen for well over a year from January 25, 2021 until March 21, 2022 at the magical number of 4,636. Prior to that, from April 20, 2020 to January 25, there were four deaths. Taking these numbers at face value, this would make the death rate of the United States, where superior vaccines were distributed with high compliance rates, 800 times higher than China’s.

In the US, we have an old saying about gullibility which goes that if you’re willing to believe some outlandish statement then we have a bridge to sell you (that being the Brooklyn Bridge). If we were to abstract this reality and describe this situation generically to a group of listeners, be they savvy statisticians or plain-thinking journalists, the chances that they would believe these numbers to be real would be next to zero.

And yet, not only have we all believed China’s claims about its Covid “success”, specifically Zero Covid, we’ve built an entire political theory around it. This theory states that while China’s authoritarian system of government certainly has its downsides (human rights and civil liberties and all that), the big upside is that it’s effective. With the pandemic, this reasoning goes, China was naturally somewhat draconian, but ultimately successful. Authoritarianism saves lives, you see.

“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” a WHO report on China’s handling of the pandemic observed. Interestingly, one of the members of the WHO mission that produced the report, epidemiologist Tim Eckmanns, told Science magazine, “I thought there was no way those numbers could be real.” And yet, despite his own disbelief, he believed them to be real.

In a 2020 column titled “China Got Better. We Got Sicker. Thanks, Trump.” Thomas Friedman touted the wild success of the CCP. “[W]ho can blame the Chinese for gloating? A pandemic that began in Wuhan, and, for now, has been contained in China.” Friedman even allowed for a little number-fudging, writing, “Maybe China’s fibbing. OK — so quadruple its numbers — China still has been vastly better at protecting its people than the United States.”

Friedman never pondered the possibility that he might need to not quadruple China’s numbers but multiply them by 180 or 800 times. The patently ridiculous baseline mortality numbers set by China and validated endlessly by the Western media allowed commentators like Friedman to factor in CCP lying by a factor of four and still be off by an order of magnitude. (Who can blame China for gloating, indeed.)

What’s curious about the narrative that emerged in Western media is that it’s almost exactly the same one that Beijing was (and still is) advancing. While Western observers might think that the CCP’s wanting to “round the edges” of reporting on data would want to do the same regarding the rougher edges of its political approach, that’s incorrect. The CCP’s own messaging used the term “draconian” to describe the measures taken in response to Covid. For us “draconian measures” is harsh criticism; for the CCP it’s self-affirmation.

As egregious as it is, Zero Covid is only one facet of China’s propaganda campaign. Another equally important piece of this puzzle, one that ties Zero Covid to the question of the pandemic’s origin, is the date of the first outbreak. While most of the media has let the question settle comfortably on China’s official story, the reality is much more questionable.

According to China (and some Western experts), the first recorded cases were diagnosed sometime in mid-December 2019, which connects the outbreak of the pandemic to people who visited the now infamous seafood market. But evidence has emerged suggesting that the first outbreak might have emerged as early as November that year that would make the seafood market origin much more difficult (if not impossible) to support.

The same arsenal of tactics has been deployed, such as disqualifying early cases in China because they didn’t meet an almost impossible criteria — for example, being admitted to hospital and testing positive with a PCR test, which required being admitted to one of the very few hospitals that administered PCR tests in those early days. A key article in Caixin tracking these disqualified early cases was swiftly taken offline with a redirect put in place to the Office of Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission. It cites a statute that calls on Chinese citizens to “fulfil social responsibilities, adhere to correct public opinion orientation and value orientation, promote socialist core values, and publish high-quality information content that is upward and good,” as DRASTIC researcher Gilles Demaneuf documented.

In a way, the CCP can be forgiven its epistemic sins. It was, after all, just doing its job: consolidating power, weaving false narratives, tamping down dissent. What’s more concerning — what is in fact, a four-alarm fire raging deep in an institutional sub-basement — is that the CCP campaign could never have succeeded without Western complicity, and most of all, with the complicity of the American media, broadly construed.

If it weren’t for the fact that China’s false mortality data was presented in Google search results; or that Twitter-verified members of China’s State-Sponsored Media could post without being flagged; or, most glaringly and egregiously, that the legacy press actively spread the mistruths and openly celebrated them, the narrative could never have been built. And even if it had been, it would never have mattered.

“The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready,” Xi Jinping said in advance of the great authoritarian spectacle, the Beijing Olympics, which took place when Zero Covid was still the official party line. Xi was right that China was ready, but though the West had turned its eyes to China, it failed to scrutinise it whatsoever.


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chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

I, for one, fall to grasp how ANYONE let alone a trained journalist (msm) would even consider that ANYTHING coming out of China, or Russia would have any relationship with the truth whatsoever. The leadership of those two countries must have zero respect for the west’s journalistic integrity – ho hum blah blah 1984 indeed.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

I can think of one main reason : TDS (Trump Derangement syndrome), which was in full swing at the time in the MSM crowd.
Big Bad Orange man says China is lying, ergo, China MUST be lauded and applauded.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

Very plausible account of elite opinion-former psychology.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Journalistic integrity?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Because China owns the media companies. They spend millions in print and TV advertising. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos imports all his cheap Amazon crap from China. Oh, and the only thing “journalists” are “trained” in is repeating approved narratives and giving the truth a good leaving alone.

Oliver Barclay
Oliver Barclay
2 years ago

What we actually learned from the CCP propaganda is how bent the Western world’s media and organisations are.

Harry Child
Harry Child
2 years ago
Reply to  Oliver Barclay

Indeed the old maxim the bigger the lie, the more often it is repeated, the more likely it is to be believed. The comment by a Guardian journalist that ““Our media have become mass producers of distortion” seems to fairly accurate.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
2 years ago

“And yet, not only have we all believed China’s claims about its Covid “success”, specifically Zero Covid
”

Who’s ‘we’?

Surely we all knew from the start that the CCP was fiddling the figures.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Yes, people on this forum and similar ones.
But just look at numbers of comments.
People consuming MSM went along with the lies.
Helped by Labour and LibDems shouting for earlier, stricter and longer lockdowns.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew F

You are starting to get onto dodgy ground when basically saying anyone who disagrees with you is being lied to while you are able to access the unvarnished truth. The notion of ‘MSM’ is yet another American culture wars import, which has less salience (not zero, but less) in the UK where there has always been a robust right of centre media, the Mail, Express etc.

The issue about China’s systematic lies is separate from the one about the effectiveness of lockdowns, and also sits a bit uncomfortably with outright covid deniers who thought the whole business was a ‘scamdemic’.

China may very well have done ‘better’ in containing covid than most western countries, despite it’s lying, because of its extreme willingness to imprison the population. Let’s be clear, this is of a different order than anything that has happened in any western country. For example, not being able to leave your flat for ANY reason, children being separated from their parents, theass killing of pets etc etc. But the point is that covid should never have been the sole concern of any government, and making it so has been a disaster.

For what it is worth, I think the origin of the virus was in the Wuhan Institute of Virology where ‘gain of function’ research was undoubtedly taking place into coronaviruses (with some American institutions involved). There was a lab leak, then panic, the database was deleted, some people in the West knew something of this, there was panic, the previous accepted pandemic plans including the advice of the WHO which did not include locking down the entire population, were unceremoniously ditched before they’d had any chance to work. The West copied China.

If the narrative sets in without challenge that this has had a good result (and that China has done ‘well’) that bodes very poorly for the maintenance of a free society in future. However I am somewhat heartened by the widespread ignoring of continuing nannying advice all over Europe, people are just fed up, some people will get covid as I just have for the 2nd time, perhaps mortality will increase a little for a while (though the virus is very mild for most now). However simply living (existing?) for as long as possible isn’t the entire point of life!

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

One grows tired of the endless pruning, re-examinations and restating of the Covid story. Slicing the ‘data’ this way and that, comparing this nation with that nation, is all a monumental distraction from the single central truth: covid lockdowns were a social and economic disaster the effects of which we are only just beginning to see.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

More of a fool’s errand. Comparing national responses using the raw figures is pointless. Demographics matter as do border controls. There may be other susceptibility factors at work as well. The press and politicians have all been corrupt in pointing out that a given place had a better/worse mitigation policy to justify local decisions – “Sweden doing mitigation all wrong.”
The data now show none of the mitigation policies were particularly effective – lockdowns, masks were more opinion based than science based. They did effectively nudge us toward a novel vaccine of questionable utility.

Dominic S
Dominic S
2 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

“questionable” is a very understated way of putting it.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago

I’ve always thought the severe lockdowns in China had more to do with controlling the population than controlling the virus. A severe public health emergency would be fertile ground for widespread discontent if public resources to deal with it were inadequate, as I suspect they are in many parts of China. That would pose an unacceptable threat to the authority of the party and its officials.

Mark
Mark
2 years ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

ALL the lockdowns had more to do with controlling the population than controlling the virus. Lockdowns were a lowest common denominator manner of buck-passing ie not my fault guv, everyone’s doing it. The Swedes, as they have been for decades, were well ahead of the game…

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Yes well done Sweden, shame no one listened.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This appears to be a non-news article.
That China has consistently lied about every aspect of the pandemic has been heavily reported outside the msm, not least here on Unherd.
That the msm has attempted to validate China’s zero covid narrative has also been heavily reported outside the msm. On the other hand, we’ve all become much more aware of the financial ties between the CCP and Western media organizations, universities, sports teams, and other institutions. The pandemic has finally shone a spotlight on China’s agenda, so much so that a few days ago the heads of the US and UK security services appeared in a joint press conference and warned about China’s intentions toward the West.
Finally, I’m perplexed by the author’s use of “we”. For example,
And yet, not only have we all believed China’s claims about its Covid “success”, specifically Zero Covid, we’ve built an entire political theory around it.
Who is the “we” in that statement? There might have been a short period during the early phase of the pandemic when a significant number of people believed China was doing a better job than the West in containing the virus, but that moment quickly passed. By the time the ultra-infectious omicron variant arrived, it was clear to everyone that zero covid was a fantasy and a very harmful fantasy at that.
Maybe the zero covid nightmare will finally end when Xi is elected lifelong leader later this year. There’s nothing like an ego buzz to soften a guy’s heart.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Wasn’t the fabled Dominic Cummings one of the great supporters of the ‘Chinese way’ at the very beginning of this ridiculous charade?

Josh Woods
Josh Woods
2 years ago

Yes, in fact twice. He was pushing for lockdowns twice(March and October 2020) even when Boris was reluctant, basically coercing the latter to lock down. In other words, Dominic Cummings is arguably even more responsible than Boris himself(more of a ‘button man’ as well as the fall guy) in dragging the UK into such shambles. Furthermore, he was the one who organized the press-led smear campaign against the Great Barrington Declaration in 2020 in cahoots with Jeremy Farrar. How he isn’t held accountable as much as the other members of the biosecurity mafia baffles me!

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

My recollection of covid years is different.
I lost many friends when pointing out Chinese lies and nonsensical mask and lockdowns mandates.
So, no. Moment when significant number of people stopped believing Chinese line has not arrived yet.
Membership of Unherd and similar is tiny.
The rest believe bbc and woke Media peddling Chinese narrative.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew F
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago

The Chinese response was always based in 2 main pillars: 1) draconian measures to give the illusion of competence 2) Faking the numbers.

The West tried to copy the response but the second pillar probably got lost in translation, because we also faked the numbers but in the OPPOSITE direction to those of the CCP.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
2 years ago

Thank you. Everyone (in the MSM) should read this article.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago

Most people I know never believed a single number coming out of China. It is just the media saying so.

I learned during the last 2 years that the real objective of the media is NOT (contrary to what most people say) to directly change/control what the viewer thinks. The real aim is controlling what the viewer thinks others think. This way the viewers can think, ‘this makes no sense but others are stupid’. Then everyone complies because everyone thinks everbody else (but not themselves) agrees with what the MSM says.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

A country that is infamous for having escalators devour hundreds a year is not one that is likely to have an effective disease control programme.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

If no one is dying of Covid, why is China still locking down entire cities? Only a fool would not realise that either plenty of people have and are still dying of Covid in China or else China is using the virus to increase regulation, already high, of its citizens.

Jonny S
Jonny S
2 years ago

To think that the cove escaped from Wuhan to the rest of the World with only a few international flights a day while not reaching all points in China with hundreds of flights a day plus a high speed rail network is obviously nonsense. Also after its high profile locking up of Wuhan , which came about partly as the rest of the world were questioning what was being done and which most of the world then copied, life got back to normal in China fairly quickly almost as if they realised it’s not much of a problem. The real puzzle is why, with an even milder version of the Cove has China continued to lock cities up. It can only be about power and making sure nothing stands in the way of the great leaders lifelong coronation.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 years ago

Remember that poster on X-Files, “I want to believe”. People who believe anything that comes out of the CCP propaganda machine believe because they want to. They want totalitarianism to work. They want to believe in a utopian future where everyone gets along and everyone works for the common good, where the individual is subservient to the collective and the government has the power to enforce conformity. Only wishful thinking could convince anyone the CCP handled COVID better than South Korea or Singapore who have natural advantages that China does not.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago

As the old adage goes ‘if you see the lips of a member of the CCP moving, you know that he/she/ it is lying’. QED.

Rich Berly
Rich Berly
2 years ago

Fashionable idealogy plays a part in explaining why western media didn’t do their job of challenging Chinese data and excluding Chinese comments on social media.
For example:
-Questioning China (or most other countries) in any way is labelled as racist by the woke.
-The desire by a minority to impose centralised control on the West mean they will only ever portray CCP as a success.
-Permanent lockdowns and removal of basic rights is also a fundamental aspect of environmental lobbies who now have a precedent to build on.

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago
Reply to  Rich Berly

Interesting that the environmental movement targets two of the three most critical goods, energy and food. Reducing either by even a minor amount sows political upheaval . Huh, I wonder who might want to do that to the west?

Last edited 2 years ago by Russ W
Brad WC
Brad WC
2 years ago

China’s zero covid policy, notwithstanding its disputable degree of effectiveness, is China’s policy simply out of lack of a better alternative. China’s poor health system and almost entirely ineffective vaccine means they have no tool other than draconian lockdowns to combat the virus spread. The self imposed lockdowns in China’s major cities are producing widespread economic devastation, precipitating the current banking crisis and threatening broad based de-industrialization. It is a catastrophe for the Chinese Communist Party, but what is their alternative? If they were to allow Chinese citizens to drop dead in the streets by the millions the Party would lose all legitimacy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brad WC
Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
2 years ago

The Grey Lady has been at it for a while: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr_Jones_(2019_film)

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago

The Economist “ML study” is suspect as this type of analysis does not lend itself to ML. Would love to see the details of the model.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russ W